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Working man's vegetable plot under attack again

Towards the end of the 20th Century economists and demographers were promoted to ranks of public importance previously held by the church, as long as they fulfilled the church’s role, which is to prop up governments. All that demographers and economists did was crunch numbers and facilitate the passage of money by encouraging population growth, but, because of the prominence they were afforded by the corporate press, the public came to the misunderstanding that these were wise men.

Demographer Bernard Salt was an Australia 2020 Summit delegate in the Population, Water, Climate Change and Cities stream in 18-29 April 2008. (1)

This is what he calls a ‘big idea’:

He wants to ‘alter Australians’ concept of beauty from a verdant back yard to a desert rockery, so as to enable a population twice Australia’s current size.

Of course he doesn’t mention that this is the way he and his colleagues became rich and could become richer, and the reason that so many of the rest of us pay more for food, water, goods and housing already. Nor that more of the same will mean worsening conditions for the rest of us.

He presents this idea as one involving changing Australians’ perception of beauty. Although the sheer effrontery of engineering our perception, as if we were so many children and Mr Salt were an adult towering over us, is appalling in itself, it is what it conceals and removes from debate that is important.

Changing the national taste in what surrounds a house, would be a strange ambition if there were no reason for it. In fact there is a reason, but it won't benefit the average Australian. Mr Salt is working for people who want to fit another 20 or so million people into Australia in the next 50 years, and, for that, he must change the way we perceive value – or change the way that we are told we will perceive value, whether we like it or not.

He achieves this by simply downgrading the value of fertile soil to a flimsy aesthetic fashion statement, which he relegates to a symbol of the past with a questionable statement.

"Our values were forged in Surrey 220 years go and they have not changed."

He does not acknowledge the obvious, which is that verdant green will grow food and support livestock, hence ensuring at least a degree of independence for a family, as the cost of food and fuel spiral. Because he makes his statements from a position marketed as authorative, it becomes very hard for anyone on the receiving end to contradict them, silly as they are.

Reducing population growth and conserving such values would probably save Australians’ lives in the next 20 years.

But, to a politician looking for an idea to market to the electorate which will also please big business, swapping a vegetable garden and some fruit trees and a place for children and pets to play, for a couple of rocks and a cactus, seems smart. We know that the newspapers will support such an idea, because they are also in the land-speculation business.

Consider this ‘wisdom’:

[Salt writes:] “Two years ago, while driving through the suburbs of the desert city of Phoenix in the US, I immediately understood why it was possible for this city to have evolved from 250,000 residents to 4 million over 60 years.
The concept of suburban beauty is different in Phoenix.”

"They see an earth-toned adobe dwelling surrounded by a rock, scoria and cactus garden as beautiful, whereas we define suburban beauty as a separate house surrounded by a green lawn and verdant foliage. The Phoenicians have adopted values that reflect their environment; we haven't."

"If we could alter Australians' concept of suburban beauty, we could radically reduce our use of water …”(1), he writes. He might have added, but didn't, "...and bankers and developers could make a lot more money out of land whilst packing the rest of you in like chickens into batteries and charging the earth for rent and water."

Worse, in 2006, before the cost of oil went up so much, there was probably a big car parked outside those phonecian desert residences, indicating a little wealth besides their infertile plots, and a job to go to. Picture this in Australia in ten years, but without the car or the job.

I thought we elected government to protect us from this sort of predation.

In the words of King Crimson, “The fate of all mankind I see is in the hands of fools."
(1)Bernard Salt, “Nurturing big, better ideas for 2020”, the Australian, April 17, 2008


The idea that Phoenix's growth can be attributed to aesthetic judgements is laughable. Phoenix's growth is underpinned by the damming of the Colorado river and the mining of ground water aquifers. Over a third of the city's water usage comes from these aquifers which the Arizona Dept of Water Resources describes thus:

"Throughout this Century, groundwater has been pumped out more rapidly than it is being replenished, creating a condition called overdraft. Though a large amount of water remains stored in Arizona's aquifers, its availability is limited by location, depth and quality. By continuing to overdraft the state's groundwater supplies, we challenge our ability to ensure a secure water supply for the future."

So while the city is host to some sensible water initiatives (such as re-using treated effluent) to reduce its environmental impact, we're still left with the clear impression that this growth - described with something approaching rapture by Mr Salt - is unsustainable.

Having a desert style garden might be nice but it's no substitute for a sustainable population policy.

On a separate issue, I feel I must defend the honour of demographers and economists. Rarely has a task given me less pleasure because in the main, both vocations warrant the criticism levelled at the start of Sheila's post. Having said that, there have been some notable exceptions in both categories that deserve a favourable mention.

In the demography category, I like the work of Katherine Betts and Bob Birrell. Both have spoken out against rampant growth and suffered verbal lashings from all the usual suspects for their trouble. As for economists, the late Ted Wheelright from Sydney Uni produced some legendary work and Evan Jones ran the 'Alert and Alarmed' blogspot which carried a number of articles critical of growth and the cargo cult mentality. Ted's treatment by the University hierarchy is infamous. Evan Jones is regularly defamed as a 'fringe' character by mainstream economites.

These are some of the few good apples in generally rotten barrels.

More power to them.


Hi Dave,
Please write us an article if you feel up to it.
See end this response for an event where Assoc Prof Katharine Betts will be speaking.
Really appreciated your comment. The truth is that I nearly added that not all demographers and economists are useless -gosh, Malthus was the first economist - (not that he got everything right) but I kind of hoped to inflame some information rich response - and did. Of course they are not ALL useless - just the ones that bad business uses to ram home its destructive agenda. I didn't know about Ted Wheelright and will look up some of his work. With regards to demographers, Cristabel Young, Graham Hugo, Terrance Hull (who is also an anthropologist I think) spring to mind as good guys. Please do write a paene to any others and post it here.

The big problem (as you probably realise) is that having a maths degree, without broader scientific method and sociological or biological background, doesn't equip you to draw any political conclusions based on a series of numbers of people. What it does permit is crafting a recipe for cashing in on trends, and it leads to people trying to organise those trends to keep on happening when they would probably ordinarily come to an end or evolve into something different. The broader public need to be educated to distrust academics who spruik for business.

It is really poor that entire state planning departments abuse past demographic trends by presenting them to the public time and again as if they were cast-iron predictions. The politicians jump on these trend-vehicles like trained dogs and tell us all to get on board and the media market them to death. I have complained in the past to the ABC that they have reported APop pronouncements as if they were equivalent to ABS pronouncements. Once upon a time - I think - the ABC didn't make those kinds of mistakes.

Mind you, quite a few sociologists have been funded by business lobbies to write ideological population-boosting books which are no better. And few sociologists have a clue about ecology or fuels, which makes them incapable of assessing the impact people and society have.

It does help to have a conscience as well and maybe some control over status hunger. Perhaps I should be more understanding; so many people are trying just to make a living, but personally I draw the line at selling my country down the [dry] river.

Katharine Betts is not a demographer She is a sociologist, as is Bob Birrell (albeit Bob has an economics degree as well, I think). Betts and Birrell draw their sociological conclusions carefully, based on research and theory.

What I object to is economists and demographers who feel okay about cobbling together a coincidence and peddling it for hire, when the consequences are so serious, such as spooking the public with mad ideologies like demographic implosion (in a world of 6.5 billion!), or implying that Australia's population is falling when it isn't etc. in the service of economic growthist ideology. And the coarse and fascist remedies they propose for their imaginary problems. The horrible thing is that business has used these people plus money like weapons against democracy, and the politicians have been sucked in or induced to foist this kind of really muddy thinking on the public. So now we are in danger of having some official policy of growing our population to two or three times its size, against a background of oil depletion and atmospheric pollution, soil impoverishment and water overshoot, intensification of intensive feedlot farming, and gross fracturing of the population structures and social organisation of much of our wildlife. We are becoming such a depraved society.

By the way, Katharine Betts will be giving a lecture and discussion session at the North Melbourne Town Hall Library on 10 May at 3-4pm.

Are we going too big?

How fast is Australia’s population really growing?
How much of this growth is due to immigration?
Have trends really changed dramatically?
Did we need a baby bonus?
Do government and the media give the true picture in a state where the impacts of growth are becoming overwhelming— traffic-choked roads, water restrictions, anxiety about future water supply, pressure on land for housing, unaffordability, constant massive infrastructure projects and increasing need to protect wildlife from rapid growth and development....... ?


DR KATHARINE BETTS, Australian Population Sociologist, Associate Professor in Sociology at Swinburne University, Editor of Monash University demographic quarterly, People and Place, and Author of Immigration Ideology and The Great Divide.

This session will look at Statistics and Politics:

Statistics: Changes in collection and definition of Australian immigration statistics over the past 10 years.
Reliable estimates of the numbers from 1998-2008 (Migration and total population change)

Politics: Interpreting recent trends in Australian Political population policy and how policy intersects with real immigration numbers.

Dr Katharine Betts is Australia’s leading expert in different ways of measuring and presenting immigration statistics. An experienced teacher, she will explain Australian population statistics and show trends over the long and short term.



(After the SPA VIC AGM at 2PM)

Saturday 10TH May

North Melbourne Library (upstairs)

66 Errol St. North Melbourne (Melway ref.2A J 10)

Sheila Newman, population sociologist
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Hi Sheila,

Thank you for your follow-up and kind words. My comments were really aimed at directing readers to the work of some of the 'good guys' and happily they seem to have had that effect. I certainly didn't mean to criticise your article, which was - as always - perceptive and clear.

E.L (Ted) Wheelwright wrote a number of books and lectured in political economy at Sydney Uni. Sadly he passed away last year, but he's left a legacy of works on globalism and Australian economic history. He also wrote the occasional piece for the Social Contract press - a US based outfit with an interest in sustainability and population issues. He truly was one of the good guys.

Evan Jones produced what was one of my all time favourite blogs - Alert and Alarmed. Contrary to the dry obfuscation associated with so many economic writings, Evan writes to be understood; and in a lively style. In an article about the top marginal tax rate, for instance, he considers those Australians who threaten to move offshore because of the 'crippling' top marginal rate (at the time) of 47%. He says:

"Some Aussies will feel the imposition of a 47% marginal tax rate, so they race off to Hong Kong to escape its tyranny. Good luck to them in the shitbox that is Hong Kong, and good riddance."


A&A was sadly discontinued in 2006 but it still makes an interesting read. I was very pleased to see that our own dagget had been in and left a supportive comment with links back to this site.

With short term profit inspiring so much misrepresentation in the media, I think it's important to share any source material that can be used to refute it. And to support those who speak out publicly in the national interest.

Katharine Betts lecture on 10 May would be well worth attending for anyone in Melbourne.. I look forward to her next appearance in sunny Canberra.



On a separate issue, I feel I must defend the honour of demographers and economists. Rarely has a task given me less pleasure because in the main, both vocations warrant the criticism levelled at the start of Sheila's post. Having said that, there have been some notable exceptions in both categories that deserve a favourable mention.

[ ed: The writer - a serial spammer - placed a link to an online handbag sales site, which we removed. He did not provide any notable demographers or economists. Of course, they do exist, but they don't get publicity in the mainstream media. We have published articles by economists on We will publish sensible articles and comments on reform in democracy, environment, population, land use planning and energy policy from anyone or any discipline as long as there is no contravention of the law. We do not censor. If a person wants to argue with our main thrust, if they submit, for instance, a growthist propaganda article, we are more likely to publish them as a comment than an article, and to argue their points. This is because the mainstream press already provides wall-to-wall growthist propaganda.]